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Step-up fights

IBHOF inductee Graham Houston assesses recent bouts where a promoter has put his charge in a step-up fight where they have a genuine chance of losing.

In the boxing trade they call them step-up fights. These are bouts where a promoter puts his charge in a fight where for the first time the fighter has a serious chance of losing. It’s a time when the promoter says, in effect: “All right. Let’s see what we’ve got here.”

This past weekend three boxers lost in step-up fights. In the most dramatic of the defeats, Josue Vargas went out in the opening round against Jose Zepeda in New York.

Puerto Rican hope Carlos Caraballo lost narrowly to Filipino Jonas Sultan in a five-knockdown thriller on the Zepeda vs Vargas show. And in the UK, Youssef Khoumari lost on a close decision to Jorge Castaneda, from Laredo, Texas.

Losers in step-up fights this year have included Willy Hutchinson, Josh Kelly and Sean McComb in the UK, Liam Wilson in Australia and Gabriel Flores Jr in the US.

In these bouts the up-and-comer all had an unbeaten record and all were facing an opponent who, while representing a severe challenge, looked beatable. But analyst Teddy Atlas likes to call the ring a “chamber of truth” and it is certainly a setting where truths are discovered.

Truths were discovered last weekend.

Let’s start with Josue Vargas. The fact that the New York-Puerto Rican lost to Jose Zepeda wasn’t a surprise. Zepeda actually opened up as the betting favourite. But when a fighter gets blown out with basically one punch, that’s a truth revealed. The truth is, Vargas’ chin cannot be trusted. When was the last time Zepeda knocked out an opponent in the first round? Seven years ago, right?

Vargas was essentially unbeaten, his sole loss having come by DQ in a fight he was winning. Vargas pushed for the fight with 140lbs contender Zepeda. It was a fight that Vargas felt very confident about winning. His summary defeat showed there’s truth in that old saying about being careful what you wish for.

While Vargas had been bet up to being a slight favourite by fight night, his cocky manner at the weigh-in was offputting. He wasn’t showing Zepeda any respect. You could see Zepeda quietly seething.

In the ring, it was payback time for the Mexican fighter. Vargas fought in a careless manner, as if he felt victory was ordained. Instead of being smart and slick, Vargas started to take the fight to Zepeda, his defence loose — and he got drilled. When a fighter goes down face-first the way Vargas did it’s essentially “fight over”.

Now, some very good fighters have lost in the first round. This includes world champions and even fighters who could be considered Hall of Fame-worthy. A boxer can get before he’s ready to get hit. Before he’s in the flow of the fight. But Vargas was so darned cocksure that many will have been pleased that he got his comeuppance. He basically walked into a KO punch. One-round endings can be misleading, but it’s difficult to see Vargas rebounding from such a humiliating type of failure.

On the same show, the Puerto Rican southpaw Caraballo was faced with his toughest opponent by far in the shape of Jonas Sultan, a world-title challenger whose wins included a unanimous decision over a current 115-pound champion, fellow-Filipino John Riel Casimero. The danger signs were there. Sultan had KO’d a slick southpaw, Sharone Carter, in his last fight. But Caraballo had the look of a future champion, with 14 KO wins in a row, including a fourth-round destruction of Mexico’s usually rugged and insistent Leonardo Baez. But Caraballo had been having things all his own way. The fighters he had been beating couldn’t stand up to his firepower. But Sultan was a different proposition.

We learned some truths about Caraballo. He is talented and he can really bang with that left hand out of his southpaw stance. He hit Sultan with the sort of left-hand blasts that might have finished a lot of fighters. However, Sultan is tough and strong — he looked at least a weight division the bigger man in the ring. Sultan could take Caraballo’s shots whereas others couldn’t. And, as we now know, Caraballo just doesn’t take a punch very well himself. He was down four times in the fight. Caraballo won every round in which he wasn’t dropped. But those knockdowns were too much for him to overcome on the scorecards.

Caraballo showed a fighting heart. He can come back and he can be involved in exciting fights. But, moving forward, his chin will always be a question mark. 

In the UK, Youssef Khoumari was matched with the toughest and hardest punching opponent he’s ever met in Jorge Castaneda. It was an even-money fight. Khoumari boxed well but the visitor from Texas had the heavier hands. 

After seven rounds, Khoumari was up on two judges’ cards, 67-66 and 68-65, and even on the third card, 67-67. But then Castaneda caught and hurt him in the eighth. Although Khoumari survived, it was now Castaneda’s fight and the visitor swept the final two rounds on the judges’ cards to pull out the win. 

It was obviously disappointing for Khoumari that the decision went against him, but it really wasn’t such a terrible setback. The TV commentary crews (DAZN) had him narrowly winning. He showed heart in coming back from that rocky eighth round, and a case could be made that he won the last round, which would have seen him get out of Dodge with a draw. If Khoumari has the determination and the will, he can regroup and maybe even come back a better fighter.

In Khoumari’s case, the step-up fight was a step back, but not a significant one. He lost to a very good fighter in an even-money match-up and was one round away from earning a draw. 

Sometimes, of course, a step-up fight can flat-out expose a boxer. But a defeat can also be a valuable learning experience. A step-up fight is a test, and sometimes the examination is failed. It happens. The bigger test for the fighter, perhaps, is to go back to the drawing board, figure out what went wrong, and return to the fray with a renewed resolve.